Richard Gowan, on the war devastating impact on the UN

New York-based Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, is one of the most astute and seasoned observers of the UN and multilateralism. In ‘The UN Is Another Casualty of Russia’s War: Why the Organization Might Never Bounce Back’, an op-ed piece in Foreign Affairs, Gowan writes that Putin’s war is severely testing the limits, possibly already at a breaking point, of diplomacy at the UN Security Council. “Russia and the US will find it very hard, or simply impossible, to cooperate on other crises through the Security Council,” he writes.

In such a context, I wanted him to share his thoughts with The G|O about the role that the UN’s Geneva hub—multilateralism’s operational center—could play in providing a platform for continuous dialogue, despite Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine being in clear violations of the UN Charter and international law. My interview with him and excerpts from his op-ed are below.


Philippe Mottaz: I’ll let the title of your piece (‘The UN Is Another Casualty of Russia’s War’) speak for itself. You clearly express some very serious concerns here about the future of the UN.

Richard Gowan: Yes, I do think that some very significant parts of the UN, most obviously the Security Council, could suffer some real long-term damage from this war. And in that sense, it may be different even to Iraq in 2003, when there was quite a conscious effort by countries like France—and indeed Russia—that opposed the Iraq invasion, to work with the US to get the UN back on track. And Kofi Annan delivered some fairly big changes, like the creation of the Human Rights Council. But today, I don’t see that sort of desire to rebuild bridges here. I think there is a sense that some profound elements of the post-Cold War UN order are broken.

PHM: Should your piece be read as an indictment of the UN?

RG: What the piece was actually meant to be was a warning, but also an appeal for some common sense. It was a warning in that I don’t think this toxin of the war in Ukraine can be confined solely to discussions of Ukraine. I think that when it comes to discussions of a mandate for cross-border aid to Syria, or the UN mandate for EU peacekeeping in Bosnia, I don’t believe that the West and Russia will be able to make compromises, and I think those mandates will fall apart.

But my piece is also an appeal to common sense, because while there are some obvious flashpoints, I think there are also scenarios where the P3 (France, UK, and the US) will recognize that they still need to try to work with Russia. In March, one example uppermost in my mind was Afghanistan. There are certain issues where the P5 (France, UK, US, China, and Russia) cooperation remains essential. Even during some of the most tense moments of the Cold War, where the council didn’t meet for months at a time, the P5 did occasionally come to the UN to do deals. People are saying there’s a new Cold War at the UN. That’s an easy shorthand for what’s going on, but you have to remember that even in the Cold War, the Security Council did some important things, and the UN agreed to things like the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).


PHM: You also say that the breakdown of the UN may not be inevitable. “The Western powers will need to invest in those parts of the UN system, such as its humanitarian agencies, that can mitigate conflicts without Security Council mandates.” Could Geneva, the operational center of the multilateral system, be the locus where dialogue could continue?

RG: As you know, there’s always competition between New York and Geneva, the two great UN centers—no disrespect to Vienna. And there are times, when New York is stuck, when elements of the UN family in Geneva have to compensate for the political problems in New York.

But they compensate in different ways. One of the most striking diplomatic initiatives in the first weeks of the war was the Human Rights Council (HRC) agreeing to a commission of inquiry for Ukraine. For all the critics of the Council, you can do things in Geneva that you can’t in New York. And I think that is probably going to be increasingly the case. If we enter a phase where the Security Council is even more frequently deadlocked, more issues will come to Geneva—even if it is only partially a displacement effect.

Then you have the humanitarians. There has been a trend over the last decade for the humanitarian agencies—including the Rome-based agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP)—to play a more central role in international crisis management. Why? Because the tools at the disposal of the council, like peacekeeping and mediation, have been less effective. The humanitarians have been at the forefront in Ethiopia. They’ve been at the forefront in Afghanistan. And what we have in Afghanistan is the UN basically providing a political framework for humanitarian aid to hold the country together. So I think that, in different ways, the Human Rights Council and the humanitarian agencies are gaining traction at this moment in time. Now, is the broader world of Geneva diplomacy up for that? That’s up for debate. Because, right now, a lot of Western countries are primarily focused on marginalizing Russia, in a lot of the technical agencies and technical discussions. That could create some tensions, and complicate dialogue. That obviously doesn’t just make diplomacy with Russia harder, but worries other UN member states who do not want to be part of this fight.


PHM: So, you are saying that the West’s efforts at excluding, or at least isolating Russia might end-up being counterproductive?

RG: I think it will need to be decided on a case-by-case basis. What I am saying is that at some point, in a year or two, or five, you’re going to have to start bringing Russia back into the UN family. I see three reasons why: Firstly, cutting out a major country, for all its errors and flaws, is likely to turn it into an even more serious spoiler, with incentives to undermine UN activities it cannot influence. Secondly, I don’t think China is really going to want to see its Russian friends excluded. And thirdly, there are a lot of African states that have economic relations with the Russians and are uncomfortable with the way that they see Russia being marginalized, even if instinctively they have a lot of sympathy for Ukraine.

PHM: How do you see the US and EU relationship going forward? Do you see more unity as the crisis continues, or rifts appearing?

RG: Over the last six weeks, the US and the EU have been enormously professional and enormously effective in keeping their coalition together in New York. Whatever the long-term future of the UN might be, that has been really impressive tactical diplomacy. This has been one of the most impressive bits of US-EU cooperation we’ve seen at the UN for a while. What has struck me though, is less the transatlantic relationship than the internal EU dynamic. Because right now, Poland and the Baltic states, in close coordination with Ukraine, are really sort of pushing the EU into some pretty hardline positions here. They’ve got the political space to do so, because the way the Russians are behaving is just so awful. But it upends some of the normal balance of power in the EU group, because France and Germany instinctively would probably be more cautious. The big question, I think, is will there be a moment where Macron or Scholz say, “It’s time for a deal and we have to limit the pressure on Russia”? At that point, you might see a breakdown in the EU group.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The UN Is Another Casualty of Russia’s War
Why the Organization Might Never Bounce Back
By Richard Gowan
March 10, 2022

"Multilateralism lies on its deathbed tonight,” Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, warned the Security Council in a debate on the looming war in Ukraine in late February. Since then, UN diplomacy has remained in critical condition. Russia has blocked the council from taking any action in response to its “special military operation.” On March 2, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution deploring Russia’s actions by 141 votes to five. Moscow won only the support of Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. But Russian forces pushed on with their assault regardless.
This war threatens to do long-term damage to the UN. If hostilities drag on in Ukraine, or Moscow ends up occupying part or all of the country by force indefinitely, Russia and the United States will find it very hard, or simply impossible, to cooperate on other crises through the Security Council. Policymakers in Washington and its allies in Paris and London–who represent three of the five veto-wielding permanent seats on the UN Security Council–will have to explore whether there are some issues, such as containing Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, on which they can continue to work with the Russians, regardless of events in Ukraine. And the Western powers will need to invest in those parts of the UN system, such as its humanitarian agencies, that can mitigate conflicts without Security Council mandates.
The spectacle of Moscow flagrantly violating the UN Charter’s core principles, including respecting sovereignty and refraining from the use of force, has caused profound disquiet in New York and beyond. There has been talk in UN and academic circles of reforming the charter to stop Russia or other permanent members of the Security Council from using their veto to shield their own aggressive acts in future. Ukraine has suggested stripping Moscow of its Security Council seat altogether.

The full article can be read on Foreign Affairs' website.